The Changing Landscape of Theological Education

How Seminaries Are Adapting to New Realities

by Stuart J. Moore

The handwriting is on the wall. As Americans distance themselves from the label of Christian, preferring “spiritual” or no affiliation, attendance continues to slip across mainline denominations. Schools for ministerial formation are struggling with lower enrollments and less denominational financial support. The composition of the Christian Church is changing and the seminaries must change with it.

Why does this shift matter to the Graduate Theological Union? Sometimes we focus so much on the academic programs, M.A. and Ph.D., that we forget that the GTU is a consortium of nine seminaries, each forming church leaders in their own tradition. So when our member schools make adjustments, the effects are felt throughout the GTU.

Laurie Isenberg, Director of Community and Continuing Education at Pacific School of Religion (PSR), summarized many of the factors that seminaries are facing. For higher education in general, cost structures are not manageable, leading to tuition increases and the impetus for independent schools, like seminaries, to merge or fold. Declines in denominational membership impact giving overall, resulting in less monies set aside for seminaries, not to mention fewer positions available for graduates. Many potential attendees can’t, or won’t, quit their current job to enroll for 3 years – it’s just not feasible. Lastly, ordination requirements are changing, allowing for paths that bypass the traditional M.Div. degree.

The seminary world was stunned earlier this year when the flagship ELCA Lutheran seminary, Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, announced major cutbacks – reduction of staff and faculty, termination of a degree program, and cessation of the admission of Ph.D. students for at least three years. If one of the largest and strongest could succumb to changing tides, then what's in store for everyone else?

When these major shifts were fast approaching from the horizon, the blog site Patheos held a digital Symposium on the Future of Seminary Education. LeAnn Snow Flesher, Professor of Old Testament and Academic Dean at American Baptist Seminary of the West (ABSW), contributed three articles to the series. In one of them, she notes that the students who are attending seminary today are more likely to be of non-European descent, have pastoral experience but may not have a Bachelor's degree, be female, and be older. These older students are often on a second (or third, or fourth) career path.

Flesher challenged seminaries to develop programs that meet this new marketplace while equipping graduates to “navigate the complexities of gender, class, cultural, political, and religious differences.” They must also have the “dexterity to serve as community leaders and innovators” in addition to serving the church. Each member school is taking on that challenge within the context of its respective tradition.

Starr King School for the Ministry (SKSM), Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS), and PSR have made some of the most innovative changes to date. In March, SKSM announced their Emergent Educational Design which is “global in its scope…relational in its educational practice…[and] adaptive in its modes of teaching and learning.” The new program offers more immersion and intensive courses, intentional connections among students both in Berkeley and globally via technology, and individually-specialized opportunities for learning. Since implementing components of the design in 2009, enrollment has increased nearly 50%.

Flexible Learning Programs at PSR offer options like online, hybrid and intensive classes that enable non-residents to earn one of three different certificates, the D.Min., or one year of the M.Div. from a distance. PSR’s Theological Education for Leadership program connects lay leaders from around the world through vibrant online learning. Following a year-long discernment process, more changes are in store for PSR.

The first year of the M.Div. degree can also be taken completely online at PLTS. PLTS has partnered with Church Divinity School of the Pacific to offer the Theological Education for Emerging Ministries (TEEM) program which prepares non-seminarians for ministry while only requiring students to be on-campus three times a year.

Notably, three schools have, or will soon be, affiliated with universities. The former Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley entered an agreement in summer of 2009 to re-affiliate with Santa Clara University. The school affiliated with Santa Clara in 1958 as its School of Theology, but severed the connection when the school relocated to Berkeley in 1969 and joined the GTU.

The Franciscan School of Theology announced its planned partnership with the University of San Diego in September 2012. The Franciscan school will occupy Old Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, CA. Presently, FST operates campuses in both locations. The move will conclude in June 2014 and signals the school’s physical departure from the consortium.

Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary plans to finalize a merger by the end of 2013 with California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, CA. The seminary will remain in Berkeley as part of the GTU.

Though the governance structures differ in each case, these affiliations are meant to strengthen denominational identity, encourage collaboration across disciplines, enrich curricular offerings, and contribute to a sustainable model.

All of these changes are affecting decisions of individual schools and the GTU as a whole. The Council of Presidents has chartered several committees during the past year to study the possibility of physical merger and other forms of sharing infrastructure and educational resources that go beyond what has already been accomplished.

Great optimism has accompanied these new opportunities. The global reach of many schools has increased thanks to technology and immersion courses. Student diversity has risen with flexible learning options and multiple offerings in theological education and leadership.

President Riess Potterveld shares this positive outlook, “These are difficult times for theological education. Our partnerships at the GTU make us strong despite the swift current. Together, we are finding creative solutions to conserve resources while strengthening programs.”